My soul is in this stone
I, Kuttamuwa, servant of [the king] Panamuwa, am the one who oversaw the production of this stele for myself while still living. I placed it in an eternal chamber [?] and established a feast at this chamber: a bull for [the storm-god] Hadad, a ram for [the sun-god] Shamash and a ram for my soul that is in this stele.
So spoke Kuttamuwa, a high official in Sam'al (modern Zincirli near the Turkish-Syrian border), the capital city of a Neo-Hittite kingdom which was ruled during his lifetime -- late 8th century BCE -- by kings of a native dynasty, among whom was his lord Panamuwa.
The well preserved basalt stele (95 x 70 cm [ca. 3' x 2']) shows Kuttamuwa enjoying his own future funerary banquet. He sits before an offering table laden with loaves of bread, a big meatball, and a cooked duck. In one hand, he grasps a pine-cone -- symbol of eternity -- and, in the other, a fluted metal cup from which he will either drink or libate to his gods. The words he uttered were recorded in Samalian Aramaic, the local West Semitic dialect of the language spoken throughout northern Syria and parts of Mesopotamia at this time.
The stele was discovered in 2008. What caused the most excitement (and was even written up in the New York Times) was the extraordinary line saying that he offered up a ram 'for my soul that is in this stele', a totally unexpected insight into the purpose of this -- and presumably similar -- funerary monuments: Kuttamuwa's soul is thus not only independent of his body but resides within the stone. Professor David Schloen of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute and director of excavations, explains that this idea results from the fusion of two different traditions:
... a fascinating mixture of non-Semitic and Semitic cultural elements including a belief in the enduring human soul -- which did not inhabit the bones of the deceased, as in traditional Semitic thought ... [but that] the soul of the deceased inhabited the monument on which his image was carved and on which his final words were recorded.Semitic religions traditionally held that a person's soul adhered to the bones of the deceased (which is why, to this day, Jews may not be cremated). But, in north-Syria in the Iron Age, elite Samalians clearly believed that an individual's identity, his personal soul, resided apart from the bones -- and held court within his funerary monument.
The word used for 'soul' in Kuttamuwa's inscription is nebesh, which, as Schloen points out, is a variant of the same word for soul used in the Bible, nephesh. This Hebrew word, however, broadly describes the tomb as the house of dead souls (a widespread belief in the Semitic Near East). There is a world of difference between that belief and the notion that a soul lives on, if I may put it so, in the commemorative stone.
The Palmyrene nefesh
|Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek, Copenhagen (2nd C CE)|
Such a possibility will affect the way we think about these portraits and, inevitably, their poses, attributes, and gestures. It would make them, at least to some extent, no longer monuments of a 'visible absence' but rather 'visible presences'.
As such, I think, they are actively directing our gaze.
My soul is in my stone?
|Atenatan Gurai (133 CE)|
Yet, as we saw with the women, even those who pose their hands in more or less identical positions do not necessarily display the same finger gestures.
Rather, it seems that, for both sexes, fingers are free to speak for themselves.
Here are some numbers for what males are 'saying' with their fingers*:
|Portrait of a man, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg|
195 All fingers clenched or extended
60 Index finger extended
50 Index and middle fingers extended
3 Index and little fingers extended
2 Index, middle, and little fingers extended.
Gesture of Left Hand in Male Relief Busts
89 All fingers clenched or extended
81 Index finger extended
63 Index and middle fingers extended
48 Index and little fingers extended
26 Index, middle, and little fingers extended.
|Portrait of a priest, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg|
Holding on for dear death
|Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek, Copenhagen|
So, it seems natural that the sexes rarely share the same hand poses in death, and that most such poses are strongly gender-specific.
Why, then, do they so often share the same animated finger gestures?
|Yarhai son of Elahbe (late 2nd C CE)|
His chest, however, is fully frontal. Despite the richness of the garment and relative realism of his face, his large hands have the typical Palmyran swollen, undifferentiated look (which we talked about in Part I), with fleshly details omitted. The fingers of his right hand are extended in a comfortable pose, fingertips slightly curled; the left hand, which holds a palm frond -- perhaps a symbol of victory over evil powers -- has an over-long index finger pointing nowhere in particular; three fingers are folded back but not held under the visible thumb.
Yarhai is clearly from the top-drawer, probably of a priestly family, though not himself a priest (priests are clean-shaven and identifiable by their special caps). His finger gestures compare closely with those of the ladies Aqimat and in the Vatican portrait (lowest right) in Part I. Just as close -- once one allows for the different placement of their right hands -- are the gestures of the gentleman now in the Hermitage Museum (third Palmyran portrait down) and those of Lady Haliphat (in Part I): the right hands show two fingers extended, two partly folded; and the left hands make the mano cornuta gesture. We could make the same argument, one by one, for each group of finger gestures, but you get the idea.
So, why do men and women display the same finger gestures? There may be a straightforward answer: both sexes face the same dangers (or utter the same postmortem wishes). There does not seem to be a specific -- or at least not a stereotyped -- Palmyran mourning gesture so it seems likely that most (if not all) gestures are essentially protective. If we add this simple idea to our earlier speculation -- that the naphsa, the soul, lives on in the portrait stele -- then it makes sense, I think, to situate the need for protection right there in the tomb and not in a distant underworld.
Of course the souls of the dead want your dutiful food and drink offerings but, every time the door to the tomb is opened, dangerous elements may enter, too.
"Blessings! May evil eyes not be cast here."
I warned you. It is you who are disturbing the dead in their 'house of eternity'.
They are just reacting to your gaze.
* As in Part I, all statistics and many arguments are from the new study by Maura K. Heyn, 'Gesture and Identity in the Funerary Art of Palmyra', AJA (October 2010): more information in Part I. I hope I've made clear which are her ideas and which are mine. You may be sure the crazier ones are mind but, if in doubt, kindly send me a comment. There are, of course, also double funerary reliefs as well as the large, elegant banquet scenes. Hayn did discuss the double portraits (as well as the few 'duplicates') and they are certainly interesting. But I won't have anything to say about them this year, perhaps sometime in 2011.
A paper (available online) by Harold Craig Melchert, 'Remarks on the Kuttamuwa Inscription' really started me thinking about the possible migration of Kuttamuwa's beliefs to the farthest reaches of Syria over the centuries. Further valuable discussions of the meanings of the word nefesh in M. Mouton, 'Les tours funéaires d’Arabie: nefesh monumentales', Syria 74 (1997) 81-98; and A. Henning, Die Turmgräber von Palmyra, diss. Köln (2001) 147-49. Obviously, none of these scholars are responsible for my speculations on a naphsa-in-the-stele at Palmyra.
On Kuttamuwa, I've made use of discussions on Kris's Archaeology Blog; Eti Bonn-Muller, 'Insight into the Soul', in Archaeology magazine; and John Noble Wilford, Found: An Ancient Monument to the Soul, New York Times, 17 November 2008.
Top left: Kuttamuwa stele. Photo credit: Eudora Struble, University of Chicago.
First Palmyran man: Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek, Via Wikimedia. Photo credit: © 2006 David Monniaux.
Second Palmyran man (Atenatan Gurai ): Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek, Via Wikimedia. Photo credit: Wolfgang Sauber.
Third Palmyran man: State Hermitage Museum. Via Palmyra Tombs . Photo credit: Prof. Michael Fuller, St. Louis Community College.
Palmyran priest (right): State Hermitage Museum. Via Palmyra Tombs . Photo credit: Prof. Michael Fuller, St. Louis Community College.
Palmyran man with camel: Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek, Via Wikimedia. Photo credit: Wolfgang Sauber.
Bottom left: Yarhai son of Elahbe, Photo credit: © Musée du Louvre/C. Larrieu.